The Parable of the Ten Virgins

Matthew 25:1-13

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ 9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ 12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ 13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

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Let us consider some popular commentaries on the parable of the ten virgins.

  • Matthew Henry: “Many have a lamp of profession in their hands, but have not, in their hearts, sound knowledge and settled resolution, which are needed to carry them through the services and trials of the present state. Their hearts are not stored with holy dispositions, by the new-creating Spirit of God. Our light must shine before men in good works; but this is not likely to be long done, unless there is a fixed, active principle in the heart, of faith in Christ, and love to God and our brethren. They all slumbered and slept.”
  • Gill’s Exposition: “the Christian church was then in such a lukewarm, drowsy, and sleepy condition … the difference between nominal and real Christians … how watchful the saints should be, that they be not surprised with it (the second coming of Christ).”
  • Cambridge Bible: “This parable is another warning for the disciples of Christ “to watch.””

This parable is regularly used to exhort Christians to be watchful if they don’t want to be like the foolish virgins who didn’t have oil in their lamps.

Despite the fact that the key ingredient that the virgins needed was oil for their lamps, it is not at all reflected in reality, in how most Christians understand and live out in their walks with God. Virtually all Bible commentaries focus on various things covered under the umbrella of “watchfulness”, but none of these things were mentioned in the parable; such things as services and trials, holy dispositions, good works, etc.. The tendency to associate the oil with everything else but the Holy Spirit seems to be affirmed in most Christian communications including weekly Sunday sermons.

The exhortation for Christians to be watchful seems to be just a means to achieve the end of getting positive evaluations of their lives. The “oil” is therefore understood as the amount of good works performed or the amount of sins reduced. Why is there such a disparity between what people believe and what they practice? Why the instinctive interpretation of “oil” as works that goes against the very clear and undeniable truth set forth in Scriptures that oil really does represent the Holy Spirit?

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him (Acts 10:38).

Therefore if “oil” is to be understood as the Holy Spirit, then “watchfulness” must take on a different meaning. It cannot mean a type of watchfulness where once someone falls into a slumber his “oil”—Holy Spirit—might be stolen away from him. Just think about it, can the Holy Spirit—eternal life, salvation, the status of being children of God, righteousness in Christ, etc.—be so vulnerable to human failures and fickleness? If the answer is “No,” then this watchfulness must not mean the vigilance against the loss of “oil,” but of making sure one has “oil” in the first place.

Oil as the Holy Spirit

When God created Adam from a lump of clay, He breathed into him and Adam became a living being. This breath of life was the Holy Spirit. Then when Adam sinned, God took His Holy Spirit away so he became a walking dead; though he was still physically alive, he was spiritually dead to God. Now in this age of grace God once again gives His Holy Spirit back to those who reconcile with Him through His Son. This life—Holy Spirit—is a gift from God to man who was dead in sins and trespasses.

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13)

Now being infused again with the life of God in the person of the Holy Spirit, man becomes alive again as they were at the beginning of time. The Holy Spirit becomes to man the proof that they’re now fit for God’s kingdom, in the same manner with the oil in Jesus’ parable. With the Holy Spirit as a seal of their redemption they now possess a life that is eternal, and what is eternal cannot be lost, because if it can be lost, it is not eternal, if their sins can be forgiven once for all by the blood of the Lamb of God, they cannot be unforgiven ever again.

And as we read again at the beginning of the parable, the foolish virgins didn’t run out of oil, they simply didn’t get any oil when they picked up their lamps. They later told the wise virgins that they ran out of oil just to hide the fact that they didn’t get any of it in the first place.

The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. (Matthew 25:3)

Subjective evaluation

Let’s pick out key concepts from the commentaries quoted above: services and trials, holy disposition, good works, love to God and our brethren, slumbered and slept, lukewarm, drowsy, and sleepy condition, the difference between nominal and real Christians, and finally watchfulness.

The interesting thing is “oil” is never mentioned in any of these commentaries, except when it is mentioned for historical retelling of a wedding. In this manner of interpretation, the expositors made these characteristics to be the same thing as the oil in the virgins’ lamps, or the lack there of. This creates real problems for believers, because if the “oil” they need for their lamps are the same as these things that I call “subjective evaluations,” ALL will have failed at one point or another. They will never know if they will have enough oil when their Christ comes.

Let’s take “services and trials” as a requirement expressed by Matthew Henry. Are the believers encouraged to look for ways to serve God, and to place themselves in trying circumstances, in order to have enough “oil” for their lamps? How do they know what is to do and how much is enough?

Now comes “holy disposition.” Is there a clear and unchangeable definition of what is a holy disposition that can be used as a standard to show whether a person has enough oil in his lamp? What is perceived as a holy disposition to a person, or a tradition, may not be so to another. The Pharisees may actually be perceived as possessing more holy disposition than Jesus himself. It shows a lack of discernment and poor judgement on the part of the commentator to use such a moving target as a “holy disposition” for such an important matter as salvation.

How about “good works, love to God and the brethren” and the rest of the attributes required by the commentaries above? They all fall into the same category of giving the faithful elusive goals that are impossible to achieve. They all require someone’s own subjective assessment of himself to determine whether he is a real or a nominal Christian, whether he’s really zealous for God or only lukewarm. We need something more definitive than this. We need something that is unchangeable, something as firm as the foundation of the world for our salvation.

All these things put uncertainty into the hearts of believers whether they will have enough oil for the day their Christ comes. But none of these requirements—services and trials, holy disposition, and what not—are mentioned in the parable. The only thing that pits between the wise and the foolish virgins is the oil, the Holy Spirit, and we know from Ephesians 1:13 that the Holy Spirit is given to believers through faith in Christ, not through any works done in the flesh.

Watchfulness revisited

If we pay close attention to what we read from the parable, we’d find that the lack of watchfulness on the part of the foolish virgins was at the very beginning when they embarked on the journey without any oil: 3The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.” They didn’t run out of oil, for if the oil represents the Holy Spirit, it can never run out, it’s eternal like the stream of living water that will never run dry, like the sacrifice of the Lamb of God that paid for our sins once for all.

Now what about the wise virgins, do they need to be watchful as proposed by most Bible teachers? No, but instead with their being filled with oil, with the Holy Spirit, they could rest in the assurance that they got what they needed to enter the presence of the bridegroom. Jesus gave these parables in Luke 14 which might help us understand what he meant when he said: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

28“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ (Luke 14:28-30)

31“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:31-33)

If we were to put these parables in the language of the commentators above, using their method of subjective evaluation, we can paraphrase these parables as follows: Suppose you want to go to heaven. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough “services and trials,” “holy disposition,” “good works,” “love of God and the brethrens,” “never fall into a slumber nor sleep,” “being always hot and never lukewarm,” “make sure your Christianity is real and and not nominal,” and “be always watchful” to achieve your goal?

Can the best person among us without a hint of hypocrisy in his heart answer with a decisive YES? Of course the answer is NO, and yet there are so many Christians who embark on the journey to the promised land without first making sure they have the oil they need, they’re like the foolish virgins who get on the road “hoping” to get a filling along the way. Little did they know the bridegroom may appear to them at any time.

Many spiritual leaders send their flock on the road without any oil in their lamps like that. Perhaps they don’t even have it themselves so they don’t think it’s necessary. This is where the exhortation for watchfulness becomes an indispensible part of their ministries. But to those who already has oil in their lamps, the bridegroom might as well be already in their hearts.

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13)

Then how can it be that some virgins, some Christians, are so foolish that they embark on their journey with the oil of the Holy Spirit?

In conclusion

The watchfulness theology commits the gross error of assuming the foolish virgins may, through their watchfulness, good works, or repentance and obedience, or their efforts in banishing sins from their lives, may somehow get the oil they need for their lamps. This parable tells us that they cannot through any means whatsoever get the oil they need AFTER they took their lamps. What this means is no amount of good works, watchfulness, obedience and repentance, can get them what they lacked in the first place.

So many Christians commit the same fallacy with the foolish virgins. They entered the Christian faith, like the virgins took their lamps, but neglected to come to the full understanding of their salvation, like the foolish virgins who did not take the oil along with their lamps. In the parable of the sower Jesus concluded that the key difference between the good and bad soils was the understanding of the gospel they received, or the lack thereof.

Another major mistake they made was their asking the wise virgins for the oil they needed. They should have instead realized their mistake and went back to the place where they got their lamps and ask for the oil from the source. What does this mean in the Christian life? This place where the oil can be asked for is the place of grace, the beginning of the journey, being empty handed, and it is there the oil, the Holy Spirit, can be given at just the cost of believing. Trying to find oil when you’re already on the journey is impossible because it can neither be shared nor bought. Perhaps the wise virgins’ advice to the foolish ones to go buy oil is a sarcasm that Jesus used often to those who attempted to get right with God through the works of the law. Ah, there it is: no one can through the works of the law gets a filling of the oil of the Holy Spirit of God (Romans 3:20). Go back. Leave everything behind, your religious achievements, your righteous deeds, your years in ministries, your place in your faith communities, and come back to that place at the foot of the cross again afresh. Get your filling of God’s oil to the brim before you get back on your journey. And while you’re on it, don’t ever doubt that “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) and commit the deadly fallacy of trying to buy, or work to earn, the oil of God that can only be received for free, because once again, either you had it, the oil, the Spirit of God, at that place of grace, or you don’t.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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